Understanding the Impact of Trauma on Your Autonomic Nervous System

The human body’s response to trauma is intricate and multifaceted, involving various physiological systems, including the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The autonomic nervous system plays a crucial role in regulating involuntary bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing, digestion, and more. In this blog post, we’ll delve into how trauma affects the autonomic nervous system and explore the long-lasting consequences it can have on an individual’s physical and emotional well-being.


The Autonomic Nervous System: A Brief Overview


Before we delve into the impact of trauma, let’s understand the autonomic nervous system. It consists of two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). These branches work together to maintain homeostasis in the body. The SNS is responsible for the “fight or flight” response, activating during times of stress or danger. Conversely, the PNS promotes the “rest and digest” state, helping the body relax and recover.  The ANS is constantly interpreting cues in our environment to subconsciously let us know if we are safe or in danger.


The Impact of Trauma on the Autonomic Nervous System


Trauma, whether experienced as a single event or prolonged exposure to stressors, can disrupt the balance within the autonomic nervous system. Here’s how trauma can impact both branches:


Sympathetic Overdrive: Individuals who have experienced trauma often find their sympathetic nervous system in a state of hyperarousal. This means that they may be more prone to experiencing heightened anxiety, hypervigilance, and an increased heart rate. This persistent activation of the SNS can lead to exhaustion, difficulty sleeping, and even physical symptoms like gut issues, headaches, muscle tension, and chronic pain.


Hypervigilance: Trauma survivors may develop hypervigilance, a state of constant alertness and scanning the environment for potential threats. This heightened state of awareness leads to increased levels of stress hormones, contributing to ongoing ANS dysregulation.


Dysregulation of the Parasympathetic Nervous System: Trauma can also disrupt the functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation and restoration. Individuals who have experienced trauma might struggle to activate the PNS, making it challenging to calm down, relax, and experience a sense of safety.


Impact on Social Relationships: Trauma’s influence extends to social relationships, as individuals may find it challenging to connect due to ANS dysregulation. The altered PNS response can hinder one’s ability to feel safe and comforted in the presence of others, leading to isolation and loneliness.  It can cause misinformation, leading the ANS to alert your body that someone or something is unsafe, when everything is safe.


Long-Term Consequences


The long-term impact of trauma on the autonomic nervous system can manifest in various ways:


Physical Health Issues: The persistent activation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to chronic health problems, including cardiovascular issues, digestive disorders, and weakened immune responses.


Mental Health Disorders: Dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system is closely linked to mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression. Trauma survivors might struggle with emotional regulation, experiencing mood swings and emotional reactivity.


Somatic Symptoms: Unresolved trauma can manifest as physical symptoms, often referred to as somatic symptoms. These may include chronic pain, fatigue, and unexplained physical discomfort.


Healing and Recovery


Recognizing the impact of trauma on the autonomic nervous system is a crucial step toward healing and recovery. Trauma-informed approaches, therapy, and self-care practices can help individuals regulate their ANS responses and mitigate the long-term consequences of trauma. Techniques such as EMDR, mindfulness, deep breathing, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation can aid in activating the parasympathetic nervous system and promoting relaxation.  These interventions help the ANS re-wire and begin to read cues appropriately. We call this a bottom up approach, which is different from a “top down” approach that would include challenging your thoughts.  Understanding trauma’s impact on the Autonomic Nervous System means understanding that “you can’t think your way to safety.” (a reference to Dr. Stephen Porges who developed the Polyvagal Theory that helps providers today understand the ANS’s role in treatment.)




Trauma’s impact on the autonomic nervous system is profound and far-reaching, affecting both physical and emotional well-being. By understanding how trauma disrupts the delicate balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, we can better appreciate the challenges faced by trauma survivors. With the right support, therapy, and self-care strategies, individuals can work toward regulating their autonomic responses, promoting healing, and enhancing their overall quality of life.


Reach out today to learn how Brighter Minds Therapy can help you learn to regulate your autonomic nervous system and lead you to feel safer in everyday life.

Therapist, Practice Owner, Business Coach

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